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Pakistani Taliban Quiz Mehsud Kin Over 'Spying'

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- The Pakistani Taliban has detained four relatives of its leader Baitullah Mehsud, believed to have been killed this month in a U.S. missile strike, on suspicion of tipping off authorities about his whereabouts, security officials said.

Pakistani and U.S. officials are almost certain Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban, was killed when a missile fired by a U.S. pilotless drone aircraft hit his father-in-law's house in South Waziristan on the Afghan border on August 5.

Mehsud's aides have denied his death.

Pakistani and U.S. officials have said the militants appeared to be in disarray after Mehsud's death, with reports of infighting between factions vying to take command.

A senior intelligence official said Mehsud's father-in-law, Ikramuddin Mehsud, his son, one of his brothers and a nephew had been detained by the Taliban on suspicion they had passed on information about Mehsud's whereabouts.

"They were arrested two days ago and are being interrogated by the Taliban in Sararogha," one of the intelligence agency officials, who declined to be identified, said on August 22, referring to a Mehsud stronghold in South Waziristan.

Another intelligence official and an influential ethnic-Pashtun tribal elder in the region also said the family members had been detained.

Mehsud's second wife, who was Ikramuddin's daughter, and some of his bodyguards were killed in the missile strike.

Mehsud had been suffering from a stomach ailment and was lying on a cot on the flat roof of the house while his wife was sitting beside him when the missile struck shortly after midnight, the security officials and tribal elder said.

Numerous people have been detained by the Taliban, and many of them executed, on suspicion of spying since the United States intensified its drone attacks last year.

Driver Killed

Earlier, Ikramuddin's brother, Saadullah Mehsud, a paramedic who lived nearby, had been called to provide medical treatment for Mehsud's stomach problem.

The missile hit the house shortly after Saadullah had left, arousing Taliban suspicion he had passed on information, the second intelligence official said. Saadullah was among those detained.

The tribal elder said the militants had shot dead Mehsud's driver, Mohammad Qasim, also known as Kashif, shortly after the missile strike, on suspicion of spying.

While Mehsud's aides deny their leader is dead, Pakistani and U.S. officials say the Taliban have shown no evidence he is alive. Jockeying for power among his commanders has only reinforced the belief he is dead.

Mehsud's deputy, Faqir Mohammad, this week announced he was temporarily taking over command of the Pakistani Taliban alliance of factions because Mehsud was sick and lying low.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on August 20 that "we took out" Mehsud, blamed for a wave of bombings in Pakistan, including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Analysts say the Taliban's reluctance to admit Mehsud's death could be a tactic aimed at averting discord before the leadership question is settled.

Separately, a Taliban commander in the North Waziristan region, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, announced a cease-fire in Pakistan to mark the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starting on August 23.

Bahadur's men operate mostly in Afghanistan although they ambushed a Pakistani military convoy in June, killing 16 soldiers, and abandoned a peace deal with the government.